Lt. Gen. Larry D. James is the Air Force’s deputy chief for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, giving him the flying service’s drone portfolio.
During a rare public talk yesterday in Washington, James let on that “sustainment” of the drone fleet is his next big task. That means focusing less on designing new robots, as the Air Force’s new budget indicates, and more on the human problem of managing the absolutely enormous amount of data that its Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks and Sentinels generate.
“The future is going to be taking all sources of information and developing knowledge and intelligence from that,” James said. He’s working on some software fixes for that, as well as some data-storage farms. Welcome to the age of Big Drone Data.
The Air Force has actually lived in it for a long time. Last year, Secretary Michael Donley lamented that it will take “years” for Air Force analysts to swim through the oceans of imagery that the drones yield. One of the major purposes of the drone fleet is to hover over an area longer than a plane with a pilot in a cockpit can, snapping photos and streaming video down to the ground. And when you’ve got a robot doing that for 16 to 22 hours at a stretch, the length of a typical drone combat-air patrol, all that data piles up.
James doesn’t have ready-made solutions, but he said the Air Force is starting to look long and hard at its big-data challenges. First comes upgrading its network infrastructure “to move the data around, store it as you need to and to do that securely.” (Indeed.)
Next comes an improved suite of software tools to integrate the video feeds with other forms of imagery, harvested from drones, satellites, piloted spy planes and other sources. It’s got to work so that “I’m not relying on the human eyeball to look at FMV, full-motion video, all the time,” he said, “the tools are doing that for me.” Forthcoming algorithms will find something from a database of electro-optical information, connect it with something from the signals database “and bring it together in a fused fashion,” James said. No timetable on when that’ll come online.